Identifying Antique Commercial Printing Processes: Part 1 of 6

Engraving: 1871 baseball trade card

Steel engraving: 1871 baseball trade card

In the upcoming six-part series, we will look at how to identify the standard antique commercial printing processes used to make everything from sports cards to advertising posters to publications to postcards.

There are two main reasons for wanting to able to identify the processes. One is connoisseurship. As a hobbyist, enthusiast or weekend museum visitor, it’s good and enjoyable to say “This is an engraving” and ”That’s a lithograph” and know how the items were made. As a seller, it’s important for business to be able to tell customers the type of print you are selling.

Relief printing: Ad for 1926 Red Grange football movie

Relief printing: Ad for 1926 Red Grange football movie

The other reason for wanting to be able to identify the antique processes is authentication. Identifying and dating the printing is 60% of authentication. When someone hands me a questioned postcard or calendar and sees me put it under a microscope, I am identifying the printing process and dating the ink. If you can identify and date the printing processes you will be a smart buyer. You will be confident that $1,000 poster is indeed old and will have no trouble weeding out the average modern reprint.

Lithography: Sweet Caporal ad sign

Lithography: Sweet Caporal cigarettes ad sign

How printing processes are identified
Process are identified by their general appearance (an engraving simply looks different than a woodcut, and you can tell the difference when they’re hung on the wall across the room), the areas of use (early 1900s magazine pictures are usually photoengravings, while silent movie posters and tobacco cards are usually lithographs), naked eye details (gloss, indendations from the printing press, other) and details revealed only under magnification.

You don’t need a laboratory to identify printing processes. If you have a loupe or $9.99 pocket microscope on you, you can judge the type and age of printing at a garage sale or in a friend’s living room. Heck, you may one day go to a museum and see they’ve mislabeled a work of art hung on the wall. This has happened to me, where a major art museum misidentified Paul Gauguin prints hung on the wall. I could tell with my naked eyes they got it wrong. You’ll know you’re an advanced collector when you’re correcting museums.

Photoengraving: 1913 Police Gazette Supplement of Joe Jackson

Photoengraving: 1913 Police Gazette Supplement of Joe Jackson

The installments in this series will be:
1: Introduction (what you are reading now)
2: Relief prints, which includes woodcuts, wood-engravings and photoengraving. This class of printing was widely used to make Harper’s woodcuts, many trading cards, premiums, ad signs and publications
3: Intaglio, a general class of printing that includes engravings and etchings.
4: Antique lithography, which was used to make many sports cards, tobacco and other ad posters and signs.
5: Miscellaneous processes, including photogravure, collotype, gilding and embossing. These were used to make many movie ads, postcards, book plates and collectible prints.
6: Tips on identifying antique prints versus modern reprints and fakes. This includes details about identifying modern printing processes, judging the age of paper and card stock and common sense collecting tips.

Part II will be coming soon.


About David Cycleback

David Cycleback is an art and artifacts historian and an internationally known authentication expert. He has authenticated artifacts for major institutions, was a writer for the standard academic reference Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, and teaches courses in art authentication. Reprinted by Beijing's Three Shadows Art Center, his guides "Judging the Authenticity of Prints by the Masters" and "Judging the Authenticity of Photographs" were the first comprehensive books on the subjects published in China. He can be reached at [email protected].